Thursday, October 16, 2014

DIANE SHNIER - Slow and steady: Hungary’s media clampdown

The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, sent a frisson across the EU with his boast last weekend that he is building a “non-liberal” state, like in China, Russia or Turkey, free of “western European dogma”—but then his steady destruction of liberty in Hungary has gone largely unchallenged.

"Soft censorship", including actions such as quiet dismissals, punitive tax laws, denied radio frequencies and abuse of privacy legislation, is arguably the most worrisome type. It creeps and grows in small increments and therefore often goes unnoticed until it has become institutionalised, at which point it is difficult to reverse. Over the past four years, Hungary has seen dozens of small, and not so small, encroachments on the right to free expression. Taken en masse, certain developments in Hungary indicate a clear trajectory towards authoritarian regulation of the media, and the situation is becoming increasingly dire. 
The current troubles in Hungary date back to April 2010, when the centre-right Fidesz party was elected and Viktor Orban became prime minister. Due to the design of the Hungarian electoral system, the Fidesz party received just over 50% of the vote yet gained over two-thirds of the seats in parliament. This supermajority meant it was able to pass sweeping changes quickly, without time for public consultation and without meaningful opposition from other parties. Over the next few years, the Fidesz-dominated Hungarian parliament pushed through 600 laws, reforming (and in the process, centralising) health care, education, agriculture, the judiciary and of course the media. 
Among the most controversial of these early reforms is the Media Act, which was passed by the Hungarian parliament in December 2010. The act allows a newly created “Media Council” to fine media outlets for a number of nebulous offences, including failure to “provide balanced coverage”, publishing news that is “insulting to communities” or acting in contempt of broad ideals such as “public morality”. The Media Council, entirely composed of members appointed directly by the Fidesz party for nine-year terms, is solely responsible for interpreting these vague restrictions. Moreover, the restrictions are not limited to mass media outlets but include personal websites and blogs. Nor are the restrictions limited to media outlets within Hungary: the Media Council has the power to obstruct domestic access to international news sources, so long as the content concerns Hungary. Offenders against the Media Act can be fined up to $928,000. 

New constitution

In April 2011, the Hungarian parliament penned and signed into law a new constitution, or Fundamental Law, which many critics saw as a departure from European Union standards of democracy. There are numerous problems with this new constitution, including its vague human-rights provisions, its alteration of the maximum age for retirement—which forced 274 senior judges to resign—and the questionable democratic mandate under which Fidesz pushed it through parliament. However, most relevant to freedom of expression is that this new constitution significantly reduced the power of Hungary's constitutional court. This body is responsible for keeping the Hungarian parliament in check and ensuring that legislation abides by the constitution, and is thus a staple of any well-functioning liberal democracy. .. read more: